The flamingo is one of the most remarkable of the aquatic birds. There are five recognized species of flamingo, ranging in size from three to five feet tall. They are heavy for aquatic birds, some tipping the scales at nine pounds. While they are able to fly, they must be able to run a bit to gain the momentum to take to the air. Flamingos congregate in huge flocks, often comprised of thousands of individual birds, preferring to live in the shallow mudflats where algae and shrimp abound.
This tall, slender, pink bird stands with its oddly shaped bill dipped into the water and mud. The beak is full of hairy structures called lamellae, lining the mandibles, and rough-surfaced tongues. These lamellae allow the flamingo to filter the mud and water, removing the tiny organisms on which the birds survive. Depending on the construction of the beak, the flamingo is able to filter incredibly small organisms.
The most extreme is the lesser flamingo, which is able to sift out single-celled plants less than two-hundredths of an inch in diameter. The birds are able to sift through twenty mouthfuls a second, and the organisms derived are eaten by no other bird. As such, while the flamingo must be careful not to be consumed by predators, there are no other birds which compete with the flamingo for food.
In 1877, Anton Reichenow concluded based on the anatomy of the beak that the flamingo was related to the biblically prohibited, and hence non-kosher, stork. Such a relationship was also suggested by the famous naturalists Charles Sibley and Penelope Jenkin. If the flamingo was indeed related to the stork, then like the stork the flamingo could not be classified as a kosher bird. However, there are many characteristics of the flamingo which are drastically different from that of a stork.
Storks are known to eat fish, frogs and even small birds. The animals are often aggressively hunted by the storks, and plucked from the water individually. As noted, the diet of the flamingo is primarily small shrimp and algae. These tiny organisms are not targeted individually, but rather they are obtained by the flamingo as the bird filters the water in which these tiny organisms live. A 1980 article published by Storrs Olson and Alan Feduccia in Smithsonian Contributions to Zoology declared that the beak of the stork and the flamingo are very different, and that the beak of the stork was incapable of serving as any kind of filter feeder. It thus appears that the flamingo bears no behavioral relationship to the stork.
The flamingo is well represented in artifacts which have survived from the ancient world. These include drawings on clay jars and depictions of the birds on Egyptian tombs where the birds are thought to signify the color red. Although the flamingo was considered palatable and was sporadically consumed, it wasn’t a sought-after food until Roman times. The Romans would spice the meat and eat it; presumably the Romans were more interested in the exotic nature of the flamingo than the actual taste of its meat.
An emperor of Rome took the consumption of the flamingo to the extreme, by serving a dish which was made from the tongues of flamingos. Some naturalists have suggested that a number of populations of flamingos were completely exterminated to procure the tongues which the emperor desired.
The Talmud was compiled when Judea was occupied by the Roman legions. According to Rabbi Y.M. Levinger, based on research by Rabbis Borenstein and Levinson, the flamingo was considered a food in Judea and is identified in the Talmudic tractate Chullin 63 as a kosher bird. This single Talmudic reference indicates that the flamingo was at best considered kosher, but it unlikely that it was widely consumed by the Jewish people. The most compelling argument for the kosher status of the flamingo is its diet. Kosher birds are not predatory. In many respects, it is difficult to identify a predator. Chickens and ducks are kosher, but they will eat insects and fish. In the case of the flamingo, the construction of the beak precludes the bird from being able to consume anything but the smallest insects and invertebrates. As such, as far as the rule that no predators are kosher, it is safe to say that the flamingo is not a predator.
At present many species of flamingo are vulnerable to extinction, and as such the Orthodox Union is not considering the certification of the flamingo or encouraging anyone to eat these birds. The flamingos are known to gather in huge flocks which have often made them vulnerable to hunters and poachers. In addition, the birds are shy and will often not breed if they do not feel safe. Over the past hundred years, the pink feathers of the birds were sought for the fashion industry, leading to a reduction in the flamingo population. They have also been hunted for food. The meat of the flamingo does not seem to be very tasty, and in many instances it was reported that the meat of the flamingo sold for less than that of a chicken. I haven’t found anyone who has tasted the flamingo tongue, but most people would prefer to see the birds alive rather than on the plate.
Rabbi Chaim Loike, OU’s bird specialist, serves as OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator servicing egg, spice and chemical companies. His fascinating BTUS features on the pigeon, partridge, peacock, duck, Aracouna chickens and birds of the Bible continue to elicit great interest. Rabbi Loike is featured on the much acclaimed DVD “Kosher Birds: Who Are They,” part of OU Kosher’s educational outreach.